Generating real ROI through social media takes trackable currency

Check out my byline from the Nation’s Restaurant News:
NRN-story-scanned-for-JitenHere is the text for those who find the print to be too fine:

Many restaurant operators view social media as a marketing channel with a lot of potential, yet they’re not sure how it actually puts customers in seats. To their defense, they see Facebook posts, “Shares” and “Likes” and Tweets and Retweets and wonder, “How could this possibly help my business?”

It’s a fair question from operators who make their business decisions based on a tangible return on investment (ROI). They spend an amount on a marketing effort, and the sales it produces gives them their ROI. Cut and dried, black and white.

Not so much for less tangible social media marketing. A restaurant’s Facebook page gets lots of likes, comments and shares, and its Twitter feed attracts followers that generate Retweets. Great! But how do likes and followers translate into sales?

The answer is they don’t—at least directly. While likes and shares may lead people to visit restaurants and make purchases, those transactions aren’t verifiable or trackable at the POS terminal. Those operators are surely glad for sales any way they get them, but they can’t confirm whether those customers came there as a result of social media.

To make certain those transactions are coming as a result of social media, a restaurant needs a currency for these social interactions that is redeemable and trackable at a POS terminal. Customers could accumulate this restaurant’s currency by engaging with the restaurant and by performing fun “social tasks.”

Optimally, such a currency would be transactional – so that restaurant customer can engage their friends through word-of-mouth exchanges within social media channels.

Restaurateurs might scoff at a social media game like Farmville, but it’s actually a good demonstration of how one might achieve ROI through the performance of social tasks. Farmville achieves three aims: 1. It gives players a place to play (engagement) 2. It provides them incentives to play (players accumulate Farm Cash to buy seed, fertilizer and animals in order to expand their virtual farms beyond other players); and 3. It provides players with rewards for performing social tasks and for engaging their friends.

If a social engagement model can work for games like Farmville, applying the same concept to restaurants should really be easy. Restaurants are already social places, and people naturally share and talk about food, so engagement is nearly automatic.

So to apply the Farmville model to restaurants, operators must engage customers within the restaurant through social media, reward them with meaningful currency, and give them ways to acquire more of it by performing fun social tasks.

Customers could earn currency for inviting friends to visit the restaurant, or for talking online about a restaurant’s food: how they liked it, which items they liked, what they’d recommend to others, etc. Another task could be related to supporting a cause or a group-based activity. Every task will receive an appropriate reward in terms of such a currency.

For years, paper punch cards have served as the standard loyalty currency for restaurants. And despite their low-tech application, they are effective to the extent that they are redeemable at the cash register. Yet for a currency to be truly effective in the modern social world, it needs to be online, transactional and trackable through a POS system. If not, how else will an operator accurately track ROI?

Now is the time for restaurants to engage their customers with a meaningful currency using mobile and social technologies so they too can make real dollars – Farmville style.